Tag Archives: superfood

The Cacao Cure

We hastened indoors after a long morning of sledding. Rhode Island public schools had all been cancelled for a snow day, and the hills around my hometown were cluttered with sheer exuberance. My brothers and I had been outside for hours, so we’d finally returned home to enjoy a much-anticipated cup of hot chocolate. After shuffling through the door, we bolted into the kitchen and wrapped our hands around the warm mugs that awaited us. But just moments later, my mother rushed in. Boys. Somebody needs to go close the front door—now. Money doesn’t grow on trees! 

Looking back on this phrase my mother commonly used, I can’t help but laugh at the multi-layered irony. First, it actually did grow on trees (though it’s not technically used as money anymore), and I was drinking it. And second, the hot chocolate I had really didn’t deserve to be called chocolate at all. In actuality, I was drinking chocolate-flavored milk and sugar, and it’d be years before I’d taste an authentic piece of chocolate or raw cacao. Although they’re not classic Mesoamerican vessels, the cups below demonstrate the simplicity and delicacy of the drink compared to our Americanized whipped-cream smothered cups of pure sugar. But still, there is one thing this cup of “cocoa” did for our frozen cores and stuffy noses, regardless of the actual cacao content. It healed us.

Bowe
Mesoamerican drinking chocolate (Bowe)

Before I get into what I mean by this, let’s take a brief step back in history. The warm, liquid “hot chocolate” we drink today is far different from the Mesoamerican drinking chocolate whose origins lie deep in the rainforests of Central and South America (St Jean). Dating back to about 1900 BC, people followed a multi-step process to treat the beans, which were ground into a chocolate liquor and mixed with water along with various spices. The finished, frothy drink was prized in a wide variety of occasions, one of which happened to be in a medical setting. If you’re interested in a unique timeline, you’ll surely be mesmerized by the rollercoaster of cacao’s use as medicine across time.

From early to modern times, cacao has been used in three unique stages with respect to medicine: a flavorful disguise for actual medicines, a preventative and remedial cure-all for a variety of ailments via the humoral system, and a targeted, well-researched concentrate. Many speculators actually assume that the early success of chocolate, not unlike other stimulant beverages, was due to its acceptance as a medicine, claiming that it was only later appreciated as an object of recreation and pleasure (Norton 36).

In the first “stage” I’ve referenced above, cacao was typically used as a medicinal disguise for “real” medications. According to the Florentine Codex, a study compiled by priest Bernardino de Sahagún back in 1590, the Aztecs brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark to treat infections starting around 1400. Additionally, children suffering from diarrhea received a drink made from ground cacao beans and healing plant roots (Thompson). Again, the cacao was used here to disguise the bad flavors of additives.

During this same time period, Aztecs used cacao to mask unsavory flavors of medicinal ingredients such as roots used to treat fevers and “giant bones” used to treat urinary bleeding. This manuscript of Maya curative chants suggests that, after chanting, patients consumed a cacao-flavored concoction of herbs that treated skin rashes, fevers, and seizures (Thompson). Thus, perhaps the fact that was cacao was so commonly associated with healing is the real reason it eventually became known as a curative food itself.

This brings us to the second “stage.” After Maya dignitaries introduced chocolate to Spain in 1552, cacao really took on a medicinal role in society. Whether or not chocolate was good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health was a vital topic for many Spaniards, who were “at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe et al 120). It’s important to note that, at this point in time, European medicine still drew heavily on the philosophy of classical scholars Hippocrates and Galen (Coe et al 120).

Hippocrates held that the body contained four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever these humors fell out of balance, disease ensued (Thompson). Diseases could be “hot” or “cold” and “wet” or “dry,” and physicians typically treated them with oppositely classified pharmaceuticals. Though cold by nature and therefore normally used in this state, cacao could be prepared in hot or cold forms, depending on necessity (Thompson). As a side note, I’m surprised that chocolate was considered “cold” given it was strongly flavored and quite bitter (Coe et al 128).

In a 1631 treatise, Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma gave a glowing description of cacao as a wide-reaching medicinal food: “It quite takes away the Morpheus, cleaneth the teeth, and sweeteneth the breath, provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases” (Thompson). Later, in the 1700s, many doctors began the transition to focusing cacao on specific ailments, incorporating chocolate into smallpox treatments as a way to prevent weight loss associated with the disease. Richard Saunders—a pen name for Benjamin Franklin—references the benefits of chocolate against smallpox in the 1761 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac (Thompson). Can you imagine walking into the doctors office and getting a shot of chocolate to treat something? I know I’d be “sick” every day!

Thompson
Hypothetical depiction of chocolate as a vaccine (Thompson)

This brings us to “stage” three. I’ll start by reluctantly admitting that, dutching—a process by which chocolate is treated with an alkalizing agent that modifies color and gives a more mild taste—has removed dark chocolate’s acidity and flavanoids since it began in the 1800s (Thompson). This can be explained by the fact that many people started adding cocoa butter back into processed chocolate to make bars, along with dairy and sugar that are now widespread across modern chocolate candy, and dutching simply made it taste better when combined with these other sweet additives. Ironically, however, these manufacturing methods likely made chocolate more of a medical hindrance than help.

But there’s a bright side. Recently, raw, unadulterated cacao has been re-recognized as a so-called “superfood” that boasts healthful sources of phytochemicals including procyanidin, flavonoids, catechin, and epicatechin (Keen 436). Note that I say re-recognized given that, even though the Aztecs and Maya appeared to be shooting in the dark with their many claims about cacao’s medicinal properties, they were actually quite brilliant. In fact, they’re now joined in their claims by leading institutions such as Harvard, which are even looking closely at using cacao for treating serious ailments. If this study on using cacao to protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes produces positive results, these scientists definitely can’t take all the credit.

I’ve left my chocolate-flavored sugar days in the past, now savoring dark chocolate each and every day, and it’s particularly comforting to know that this delicious treat is still being proven as a healthy food hundreds of years after it was first claimed to be so. Now, I’ll embrace my new saying: A cacao bean a day keeps the doctor away!

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Works Cited

Bowe, Tucker. “The Legend and Lore of Hot Chocolate.” Gear Patrol, Gear Patrol, LLC, 18 Dec. 2015.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Keen, Carl L. “Chocolate: Food as Medicine/Medicine as Food.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 5, 21 June 2013, pp. 436–439. Taylor & Francis.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 1 June 2006, pp. 660–691. Oxford Academic.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” HeritageDaily, Heritage Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Image Links

  1. https://gearpatrol.com/2014/12/12/legend-lore-hot-chocolate/
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/

 

Chocolate: Healing powers of the original superfood

The term superfood, a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being, was first used in 1915 (Merriam-Webster.com). However, the seemingly unending search for the best, most potent cure-all or health-promoting remedy (be it food, drink, or supplement) is not solely a modern obsession; even though it may seem to be a product of our times with increasing sedentary lifestyles and higher caloric intake. As we look back through the history of chocolate, we can see that there has been a long-term love affair and belief in the healing powers of this proposed superfood.

Chocolate: Theobroma cacao or “food of the gods”, as is was named by the 18th century Swedish scientist, Carl von Linné, nearly 250 years after it was introduced to the Old World (Coe and Coe 17-18), had been a cultural mainstay for thousands of years. In fact, evidence of its production and consumption predates the Classic Maya and has been tracked as far back as 1900-1500BC through traces of chocolate found in barra ceramics (Coe and Coe 36-37).

This is a drawing of the barra ceramics which provided evidence of ancient civilization use of chocolate (Coe and Coe 89).

The Maya

The Maya used cacao for medicinal purposes, believing it provided power and strength in addition to digestive and anti-inflammatory remedies. Historical evidence shows that the ancient Maya consumed chocolate as a beverage, often mixed with ingredients such as flowers and spices, that it was shared socially, and had ritualistic significance (C. Martin “Sugar”).

Mayan warrior_C. Martin_Mesoamerica
Pictured here is a Mayan warrior wearing cacao pods as amulets (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The Aztecs

The Aztecs also believed in the strong healing powers of chocolate. They not only consumed it as a beverage, but mixed it with other ingredients and applied it to the skin. According to pre-Columbian era medicinal recipes documented in Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro, the Aztecs would drink “Chocolate (unmixed with other products; very bitter) … to treat stomach and intestinal complaints; when combined with liquid extruded from the bark of the silk cotton tree … this beverage was use by traditional healers to cure infections. In another recipe prescribed to reduce fever and prevent fainting, 8-10 cacao beans were ground along with dried maize kernels; this powder then was mixed with tlacoxoshitl…and the resulting beverage was drunk” (100).

Aztecs_C.Martin_Mesoamerica
This image depicts Aztec broken bodies, perhaps as a result of illnesses introduced from Europe (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

New Medicine Introduced to the Old World

Though perhaps a dubious account, rumored to be written in a 1556 letter by an “Anonymous Conquistadore”, the medicinal properties of chocolate were proclaimed to provide a drink that was “the most wholesome and substantial of any food or beverage in the world, because whoever drinks a cup of this liquor can go thru a whole day without taking anything else even if on a cross-country journey…” (C-spot).

There was great interest in power of this potential medicine, but there was also concern about its potency, and the fact that it was an unfamiliar and exotic substance. Spanish Royal Physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernandez, crossed the Atlantic in 1570 to determine how to “incorporate cacáo into a ‘civilized’ framework: an apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacáo contains healing-properties encompassing 3 & perhaps all 4 elements – air (fat), fire (bitter), earth (thick) & maybe water (sweet) – to yield a neutral temperament leaning ‘wet-cool’, thus making it acceptable. (Unbeknownst to Europeans, native medicine also treated cacáo as similarly ‘cool’, applying it as an emollient in hot illnesses such as fevers & dysentery.)” (C-spot).

4 Humors_C.Martin_Sugar
Depiction of the four temperaments based on the humoral schemed devised by Hippocrates and Galen (C. Martin “Sugar”).

Once brought to Spain, it was introduced across borders as a medicine and quickly gained popularity across Europe. For example, the following account was published in 1713 in Bonaventure d’Argonne’s Melanges d’Histoire et de Litterature: “We know that Cardinal Brancaccio wrote a treatise on Chocolate, but perhaps we do not know that Cardinal of Lyon, Alphonse de Richelieu, was the first in France to use this drug. I heard from one of his servants that he used it to moderate the vapors of his spleen, and that he had the secret from some Spanish monks who brought it to France” (Coe and Coe 152).

Chocolate Today

Coe and Coe write that, in addition to media highlights, there has been an abundance of medical and nutritional literature published in the last decade advocating the beneficial health effects of chocolate; primarily due to alkaloids caffeine and theobromine (30). Through these recent medical studies, it is known that caffeine levels are low and that bromine “is said to be mood-enhancing, and is a known stimulant, vasodilator, and diuretic” (Coe and Coe 31).

 As can be seen after thousands of years of collective (if sometimes controversial) scientific, medicinal, religious, and cultural evidence, chocolate does indeed seem to have healing powers and just may be the original superfood.

Works Cited

A Concise History Of Chocolate. C-spot. http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/. N.p. N.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Grivetti, Louis Evan. and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. Wiley:New York, 2009. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 17 Feb. 2016. Class Lecture.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html. Lynne Olver 2000. 1 March 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2016

“Superfood.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web. 19 February 2016.

Delicious Medicine

Mary_Poppins5chocolate prescription

In Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews sang a song about how “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and in the case of chocolate, she was most certainly correct. Medicine has historically been reputed to have a bitter taste, so it makes sense that as far back as the Aztecs (and possibly the Olmecs), chocolate has been attributed as having all sorts of healing properties and positive effects on the body.  In this essay, we will explore the use of chocolate as a health remedy along with how and why these uses have changed over time.

Historically, cacao consumption is believed to have started in Mesoamerica.  Cacao was consumed by Aztec elites as an after dinner treat, and cacao consumption was featured in certain Aztec rituals [1].  However, from European historical accounts by both Bernal Diaz del Castillo and the Franciscan friar, Bernadino de Saharan, we know that the Aztecs used cacao as a sexual stimulant as well as for a variety of health problems including heart trouble, infections, respiratory illness, and hemorrhoids [2].  In Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries, Mesoamericans are described as using cacao to treat snakebites and to strengthen their warriors for battle [3].  While the consumption of cacao was seen as spiritual amongst the Maya, they were also known to use cacao in order to treat skin ailments, epilepsy, and fever [2].  With so many amazing healing properties, colonial Europeans must have believed cacao to be a medical marvel.

Pietro_Longhi_025

Cacao was transformed when it was brought to the European continent.  Cacao went from a drink that was mostly used by Mesoamericans for ritualistic purposes to a drink that was used primarily for medicinal purposes [1]. The Church played a large role in relegating European chocolate consumption to medical purposes.  This was due to the fact that chocolate was seen as a mind altering substance, a euphoria-inducing experience, and its consumption potentially went against Church fasting rituals [1].  In order to get around Church skepticism, many scholars wrote about the medical uses of chocolate, and they tried to make chocolate fit into the “humoral system” [1].  Using Galen’s theory, early European physicians tried to classify chocolate as hot or cold and wet or dry based on their own observations and most likely their personal taste preferences [1].  In the end, colonial Europeans used chocolate to treat hysteria, melancholy, thinness, fatigue, chest pains, kidney disease, stomach ailments, anemia, fainting, STDs, blood circulation, hypochondria and respiratory ailments [1][2][3].

8653136187_d00eeb0e62

Today, chocolate consumption in the mass quantities seen in Mesoamerica and Europe is considered part of an unhealthy lifestyle.  This has led big chocolate companies like Hersheys and Mars to fund research into the health benefits of cacao in order to reclassify chocolate as a superfood and widen their market shares.  Therefore, many studies have been done in recent years in order to prove that regular cacao consumption will improve a person’s health.  Modern studies have shown that dark chocolate improves heart health, suppresses cough and improves respiratory function, is good for mental health, improves cognitive function, and helps with gastrointestinal disorders [3][4].

In conclusion, moderate dark chocolate consumption is beneficial for a person’s health.  However, it is important to understand that historically medical science has been used to promote the consumption of chocolate and that this tradition continues to this day.  Many of the chocolate health studies are funded by those who have a financial stake in the results, and it is difficult for people to understand that milk chocolate will not confer the same health benefits as dark chocolate.  Therefore, it is fundamentally important that one consume his or her chocolate responsibly.

Sources

[1]  Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Location 1210). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition. 

[2] Thompson, H.  Smithsonian Institute.  “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin”. February 12, 2015.  Retrieved March 2015.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/#XCH2vlSAKJQrYxlF.99

[3] Hurst, J., Wilson, P.  Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries.  Royal Society of Chemistry; 1 edition. October 2, 2012.

[4] Lippi, D.  “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food”. in Nutrients. May 2013. 1573–1584.  Retrieved March 2015.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/

Media Sources

Picture of Mary Poppins via Creative Commons. 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Mary_Poppins5.jpg

Chocolate Prescription via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.

http://4imgs.com/1075/sys/prod/16_3_0_0.JPG

The morning chocolate by Pietro Longhi; Venice, 1775-1780 picture via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”. 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/Pietro_Longhi_025.jpg

“Eat this not that” picture via Google Images filtered “labeled for noncommercial reuse”.

https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8249/8653136187_d00eeb0e62.jpg